Judaism, said organizers of a conference this week in Jerusalem pertaining to religious issues long discussed by Jews worldwide, “is often seen in Israel as an exclusive religious teaching that manages to exclude large parts of Israeli society and Diaspora Jewry.”

The stated vision of the conference—hosted by the Jewish Agency for Israel, Haaretz, the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—intended to expand the definitions of Judaism beyond the narrow-religious boundaries.

“The important thing is to create a debate in Israel about alternative ways to exercise your Jewishness, not just Orthodox ways,” Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken told JNS. “And to recognize the various ways of doing it on an equal footing. It’s not just the haredi and national religious who get to run the show.”

While working to expand the definition of Judaism and promote discussion, however, some participants noted that certain types of people and discussions were left out.

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi David Eliezrie, co-director of the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, Calif., maintained what while he sees “great value” in many of the presentations with speakers making “phenomenal points,” he was “saddened that there was no representative from the haredi community,” which would have offered “balance and deeper discussion,” he told JNS.

“Those in the Orthodox world who are here are left of center and not representing mainstream Orthodox thought,” said the rabbi.

The real crisis of the Diaspora—a conversation about which he said was missing from the conference and might have been led haredi speakers—is the failing of Jewish education among young American Jews. To that end, Chabad emissary couples on college campuses throughout North America, Israel and Europe offer Torah study, classes, Shabbat dinners, holiday programs and other opportunities to grow Yiddishkeit.

‘The country is for each of the people in it’

Lisa Barkan, Jerusalem resident and founder of nonprofit Jerusalem Village, similarly told JNS that while the Oct. 30 conference discussed a “policy direction” in detail, grassroots, face-to-face dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora over relevant topics was not discussed, despite “playing a central role” in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

She agreed with Eliezrie that “there are not many kipot here,” and she hasn’t seen “a single haredi” Jew. Though otherwise, she said, the conference provided a comfortable meeting place for a “diverse collection of people who really care.”

Conference organizers said haredi members of Knesset were invited to speak but declined.

According to Schocken, Knesset member for the Haredi United Torah Judaism Party Moshe Gafni told organizers, “if I support the left wing, they will recognize the Reform Jews,” who Schocken said are viewed as “the haredis’ greatest enemy.”

“They are suspicious,” he explained. “They say Haaretz is anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic because we oppose Israeli civilian presence in occupied territories, which is our position.”

However, he clarified, “Haaretz is a Zionist newspaper. Our view is that Israel is a just and necessary solution for the Jews, and the existence of Israel and the fulfillment of Zionism is extremely important for the Jewish people.”

“We have to strengthen Israel and make it successful, but we think that the country is for each of the people in it,” he continued.

At plenaries with speakers that included prominent figures from Israeli society, politicians, academics, social entrepreneurs and leading representatives of Diaspora Jewry, the dialogue focused on fundamental questions regarding Jewish identity in Israel and the ties with the Diaspora.

Natan Sharansky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“What is Judaism? Is it a religion, nation, culture or peoplehood?” posed one session. Panelists, who included well-known former refusenik and chairman of the advisory board of Genesis Prize Foundation Natan Sharansky, determined that Judaism is all of the above, and “only with a broader perception of Judaism is it possible to realize the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state, and to build a strong, open and respectful relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”

According to Sharansky, “some see [Judaism] as a religion or nationality. Some see it as a world of culture or history.” He maintained that “we cannot decide one section is Judaism and another isn’t … we must preserve all facets of Judaism and be in dialogue with one another.”

During his address, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin lauded Haaretz for bringing discussions of Judaism outside the traditional synagogues and Batai Midrash, some of which have been “critical cultural assets of Jewish literature.”

However, he added, “in the Israeli discourse, Haaretz has many times taken the fascinating role of pouring gasoline—to burn, to inflame, to challenge, to irritate. It is a role that has importance. But sometimes, you have to stop and ask how do we keep feeding the bonfire and still let people warm themselves in its light?”

He encouraged the media to fulfill its responsibility “to ask questions about Judaism and humanity. To confront the concept of universal Judaism as opposed to particular Judaism. To write about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. To debate about religiosity and secularization. To be a bridge between the diverse Jewish people living in Israel, and the diverse and complex Jewish people living in the Diaspora.”

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